Teaching Boat Handling

Boat handling course suggested content

Most of the course should take place in sheltered waters near to the vessel's home berth.

However, it may be appropriate to go to outside the harbour or river, to carry out some training in a different situation. In this case, it should be borne in mind that a considerable amount of time will be spent sailing and not in detailed handling of the vessel.

The intention of this course is to improve the student's boat handling under power by giving them an understanding of the basic characteristics of yachts and then learning to apply it in practical cases.

In addition to this, the student must understand the importance of situation analysis, crew briefing, organisation and control.

Situation Analysis.

  • Assess the conditions of wind and tide.

  • Assess the likely handling of the vessel.

  • Devise a plan to use the forces acting on the boat.

  • Briefing.

Everyone should understand the overall plan, then they can assist if the unexpected happens!


The skipper must delegate specific jobs to individuals in the crew, and check that they understand what is required of them. It may be appropriate to pick crew for certain tasks because they are the most suited (e.g. in a tricky manoeuvre, do not choose someone who has a history of fumbling ropes to handle the most critical mooring line!).


Many manoeuvres fail because the skipper fails to control the timing of actions. They must be prepared to give clear orders as required. Emphasise that the job is not competed until the boat is fully secured! Many novice skippers relax once the boat has arrived at the pontoon and the crew are ashore, they must continue to control the crew's actions.

On a windy day or in strong tidal conditions, split second timing of releasing a rope may be critical to performing a safe and successful manoeuvre.

Some novice skippers are nervous of appearing "bossy" or telling people to do something that they can already do. The answer to this is that if you watch an orchestra, the director is giving instructions and controlling the musicians actions but the director probably could not play the instruments as well as the musicians, however the directors role is to control the timing of what happens. This is the role of the skipper, to control the timing, not necessarily that they know more than the person they are giving orders to.

Control of the boat.

Students must also be encouraged to experiment with standing in different places in the cockpit and to be prepared to move about. Many students who struggle with boat handling do so because they do not stand in a place where they have quick access to the throttle, or they block tiller movements with their body.


  • Throttle control (experiment with different directions relative to the wind). Speeding up and slowing down, try using the feet to work the throttle if it is low down.

  • Stopping the vessel, emphasise looking sideways.

  • Stopping on a transit.

  • Stopping on a transit without using the reverse.

  • Experiment with the handling of the vessel when just powered by the wind.
General principles.

  • Always manoeuvre in to the tide, or the wind if there is no tide.

  • Assessment of tidal direction, weed, flow on fixed objects, stop boat across the tide.

  • Mooring up head to wind to stop wind/rain blowing down hatch (if appropriate).
General characteristics.

  • Prop walk.

  • Bows tendency to blow down wind.

  • Leeway at slow speed.

Experiment with the minimum speed at which the boat can be kept on course. Using bursts of power to thrust against the rudder. Requirement for water to flow across the rudder.

  • Driving in reverse.

  • Going from forwards to reverse.

  • Steering in reverse.

  • 3 point turns.

  • Stopping on a transit.

  • Reversing up to a buoy and stopping.

  • Turning the boat.

  • Try tight turns when going forwards.

  • Identify the boat's pivot point.

  • Tight turns using the reverse and wind effects.

Picking up a buoy.

Preparation, rope, boat hook, crew briefed. Use of the boat hook, pulling not levering with it! Distance from the buoy, communication with the crew. Speed control. Ensuring the vessel remains stopped. Mooring up, use of a slip line, securing for a longer stay, chafing on the rope. Picking up the buoy at the bow, shrouds or even the stern.

An advanced exercise is to stop at a buoy with out using the throttle, the only stopping forces being the wind and tide.

Coming alongside.

Use of cleats, means of attachment. Use of a centre rope. Preparation on deck. Crew briefing. Angle of approach and speed. Ensure the boat is stopped. Crew control. Use of springs and other lines.

Specific situations:

Windward/leeward. Wind ahead/astern. Tide/no tide. Finger pontoons. Angle of approach when between two other vessels. Reversing on to a pontoon.

Rope work.

  • Turning the boat with warps.

  • Use of ropes to spring off. Spring forwards/backwards.

  • Ferry gliding.

In open water, forwards and backwards. To come alongside and depart.

Possible extras.

  • Night.

Carry out any of the previous exercises in the dark.

  • Close quarters sailing.

Reduce sail area. Maintain boat speed. Pass down tide/astern of moored vessels. In a training situation, keep the engine running so you can recover from mistakes.

  • Man over board.

Under power. Under sail.

  • Heaving too.

  • Sailing to a buoy.

Wind and tide together. Wind and no tide. Wind against the tide. Precautions to be taken.

  • Sailing on to a pontoon (emphasise only in emergencies).

Wind and tide together. Wind against tide. Safety!

Skill versus technique.

It is important that an instructor understands the difference between skill and technique.

What we normally teach are techniques: How to pick up a mooring, how to arrange springs etc.

What a student needs to leave a course with is an understanding of a range of techniques to cover most situations but far more important is for them to have developed skill or feel for what they are doing so that when they do not have an instructor standing alongside them, they can adjust their actions to deal with the conditions they are experiencing.

Many students for a Day Skipper practical course struggle to achieve this level of skill.

Exercises that develop skill are ones where the student is set a task and left to perform it and criticise it themselves.

One of the best is to have the students stop the vessel on a transit, with and without the use of the throttle. Give them at least three attempts, if they get it right first time, it is probably luck!

Another is to aim to stop with a fitting on the yacht as close as possible to a marker on a pontoon. I sometimes hang a marker on a cleat so they can easily identify the mark from a distance.

You will know when students have developed skill in boat handling because you will feel that you no longer need to stand quite so close to the tiller or give instructions as they are driving the boat.

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